Fortune-hunters first fought off native Americans in the Central Ohio region for animal pelts: which were extremely valuable commodities on the East Coast and in Europe. The next wave was settlers coming for something even more valuable: land.
1795: Wow a Confluence
In 1795, the Commonwealth of Virginia, on behalf of the US federal government, commissioned Lucas Sullivant, a soldier trained as a surveyor, to lead a crew of about 20 men into the heavily forested Ohio territory. The goal was to create precise maps. The plans for Indiana and Ohio becoming states were already underway, so detailed surveys were essential.
Sullivant lived in Kentucky and was not interested in moving to Ohio. But near the center of Ohio, he mapped a confluence of several rivers that provided two separate waterways reaching 60 miles to the northwest and also to the northeast. At this intersection, the two rivers became one waterway that flowed all the way into the Ohio River 100 miles to the south. Sullivant realized that being able to ship cargo to and from the center of Ohio, both north and south made this location the most strategic site in Central Ohio.
Immediately south of the confluence, the adjoined rivers formed a ‘C’ shape about a mile and half across. It formed a natural moat halfway around this site, making this site an ideal location for the area's first military base, which opened just one year later.
Realizing this was also the most accessible location in the Central of Ohio by water, Sullivant knew this was the perfect area for Ohio's capital city. In return for his surveying services, he was paid in 6,000 acres of land, so he staked most of his claim right here, west of the river.
1797: A Tribute to Benjamin
In 1797 Sullivant returned with dozens of pioneers, and he laid out 220 lots in the new settlement in the big “C”.
He named it "Franklinton", in honor of Benjamin Franklin, his hero. The name Franklin also carried over to the county, and Franklinton became the county seat.
However, this site only rose several few feet above the river, and the following spring it overflowed and flooded the area. Sullivant redesigned the settlement so the lots and roads were far enough back from the river that dikes (reinforced earth) could eventually be installed along its western banks to prevent a high river from flooding the area.
The land outside the 'C' in the Scioto River rapidly rose about 50', so flooding on the east side was not an issue. Pioneers almost always built their settlements on lower lands for convenient water access. As an area develops its wealthy people tend to move to higher ground, for the visibility and view that compliments their power. They can also afford to have servants bring them, or engineers provide them, their water.
It is not known how many people lived in Franklinton at first, but 500-1000 is the common estimate. They were mainly two ethnic groups. Most, like Sullivant, was of Irish descent, and the rest, freed African American slaves.
Because the area was overflowing with economic potential Franklinton was a very prosperous settlement when Ohio became a state in 1803. Some of its residents had made enough money to buy thousands of acres all around Franklinton, on both sides of the river, at $1 per acre.
To make sure the state politicians would pay attention to Sullivant's pitch for Franklinton becoming Ohio's capital, which they had been ignoring because of the flooding issue, some of its most prosperous residents, John Kerr, Lyne Starling, John Johnston and Alexander McLaughlin, upped the state's interest financially.
1812: Political Snubbing round #1
These wealthy Franklinton residents offered the new state government several ten-acre sites on the east side of the Scioto River, plus $50,000 (equal to many millions today), which was enough money to pay for the construction of a statehouse and several offices buildings in 1810 (background)), under one condition. "Ohio must build its statehouse on this donated land", automatically making Franklinton Ohio's State Capitol, so they assumed.
In hindsight, their agreement should have also included the words, "So Franklinton becomes Ohio's capital city".
After 9 years of politicians first trying out Zanesville and Chillicothe, history books do admit that they grew tired of dealing with local residents wanting to have input in their development plans, so they finally decided to accept the land and money from Franklinton's leaders, with a huge and unmentioned twist that Franklinton residents would not see for a couple more years.
Accepting the offer was huge for Franklinton, as they expected boatloads of federal and state funding to start arriving, building all sorts of large government projects, including the dike and a bridge across the Scioto.
Then in 1812, the state revealed their plans for the area which included its first statehouse, on the donated lands. However, this plan included a layout for the entire area (background on PC, image on phones) totally ignored Franklinton. It skirted around Franklinton on the outside of the Big "C", and this all-new city was called "Columbus". Franklinton was little more than a word written inside the big empty center of the big C.
A year or so earlier, a meeting was held in a Franklinton tavern between politicians and Franklinton residents, about possibly using a different name for the capital city they were planning. I was told in the 1980s that Franklinton people assumed they were discussing a name change for their town. I was also told, that the owner of the Franklinton tavern actually suggested the name "Columbus".
Anyways the ambitious plan would have many large buildings, along with a large grid of streets, and several 100' wide avenues (Broad and High), but there were no bridges to Franklinton, and no levee to protect it, there was not even an outhouse planned for the west side of the river.
History sources also do mention that Sullivant and the Franklinton residents were" irate", but without any deeper details. They donated the land and the money to build the area's first statehouse, to then be treated as if they and their town had nothing to do with this. The reason I am certain Franklinton residents assumed that tavern meeting was about changing Franklinton's name, is that level-headed Sulivant and the townspeople became irate when the plans exposed that Columbus was going to be a totally separate city. They would have already known this.
Sullivant and the men who donated the land apparently kept their cool when dealing with most of the politicians, the twenty acres they gave up was still only a small fraction of the east side land they had acquired. So seeing Columbus rapidly develop was still something Franklinton's wealthiest people were not going to argue with.
One of these landowners, Lyne Starling, Lucas's Sullivant's brother in law, would soon become the wealthiest man in Central Ohio, by selling land and operating a fleet of small river boats on the Scioto and Olentangy rivers. Another of these original donors, John Kerr, also became extremely wealthy from his east side land investments. In 1819, he became the second mayor of Columbus. Only the first of three deeply involved to the west side that I could determine out of 53. Kerr provided Franklinton citizens with eastside construction work.
Having a sharp mind, Sullivant realized other ways to make money beyond just selling land. For the first few years after Columbus was announced, he tried to convince the state politicians to build a bridge to Franklinton. It would cost about $10,000, only one-fifth of the cash Franklinton residents gave them.
I was told that they told him, "go build it yourself", like their way of saying "Get lost", but he responded with "fine, let's do the paperwork". He nailed their rejection into permission to build and control what would become his profitable toll bridge in 1816.
However many normal hard working Franklinton residents supposedly remained highly belligerent towards Columbus and State politicians for snubbing their town, they were not protecting investments, so they rudely expressed themselves.
Whatever they did may be why the state politicians ended the only political representation Franklinton had by 1824, they pulled the Franklin County seat away from Franklinton and gave it to Columbus. Now politicians that avoided the west side, controlled the whole county.
If you have direct knowledge, maps images, contracts, relics, or anything that spreads more light on this obviously turbulent time of Columbus history, send it to me at craig@UpperColumbus.com.
Franklinton's improvements and people remained ignored for fifty-eight years. Then suddenly in 1870, a new mayor seemed to have had a huge change of heart. He announced that both the city and state will be spending immense fortunes west of the Scioto, but he had to annex Franklinton and half of the 100' tall hill bordering its western side first.
It turned out that his "Welcome to Columbus" gifts was so frightening it made sure that wealthy developers would and could only build 'desirable' developments somewhere other than West Columbus. Check out: